Omri Ceren has done an excellent and thorough treatment at Commentary this week of how bad things could get with Syria. Scenarios in which armed conflict and the use of WMD affect not just Israel but the entire region are not out of the question. Yet nothing about the current unstable situation has been inevitable. As Omri says:
[L]ooking the other way while lunatics arm themselves, make alliances and organize together for war is generally not a good way to ensure long-term stability. The potential consequences of Syria’s free fall are terrifying examples of just how counter-productive that strategy may turn out to be.
Syria may indeed be a key test of what bad consequences actually amount to in our post-modern world. I am not convinced that policy errors like those of the 1930s are going to lead today to a conflict like World War II, one in which borders are crossed by national armies and conventional battles mark important turning points. Our future may hold something more like an updated cold war, one with multiple competitors vying to converge on territory by “asymmetric” means – and in the process enslaving peoples.
One of the factors at work here is peculiar to Syria. Libya’s geographic position consigns her to second-tier geostrategic significance (at least while the Mediterranean is solidly in NATO hands), but Syria lies at the junction of Europe, Asia, and Africa: adjacent to Turkey; on the Mediterranean; on the other side of Turkey (from Russia’s perspective) from the Turkish Straits; sharing a border with Israel; up the coast from the Suez Canal. Syria’s basic condition hasn’t changed for decades, and for the most part, that has been just fine with everyone else – because a change in Syria’s condition will necessitate a reevaluation of the alignments of all others in the region, as well as their patrons.
Of all the nations with a vested interest in the outcome in Syria, including the US, I judge Turkey to be the only one at the moment whose leadership has an actual vision for life after the Tehran-Damascus axis. That vision, of course, involves a government of Syria that swings its principal orientation to Turkey. (Iran and other Asian observers are on the qui vive for this development. See here also.) I don’t think Erdogan’s thinking is running in a purely Ottoman, acquisitive channel here; he is equally concerned with the evils for Turkey of a radical regime installed next door by Arabist elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. But aside from purely defensive considerations, the following outcomes would interfere with Erdogan’s aspirations for regional and Islamic leadership: Syria remaining a client of an increasingly demented Iran, or Syria governed by a spanking new radical Salafist regime.
Russia won’t stand idly by, however, and let Turkey create a new Islamic partnership at the entrance to the Black Sea. Russia is as interested in Syria’s independence from Turkey as she is in that of the Balkan nations. The Iran-Syria connection, on the other hand, doesn’t present as urgent a problem for Russia, and even has advantages. The most important thing for Moscow, however, is Russia’s own relationship with Syria, which provides her sole foothold in the Levant and a port on the Mediterranean.
Neither Russia nor Turkey is going to simply allow Syria to start a war with Israel. For one thing, they aren’t prepared today to profit from the consequences of such a war. Both will also jockey – separately – to prevent the independent emergence of a radical Islamist regime. Russia and Turkey have separate ends, but neither is served by uncontrolled eruptions from Syria.
Nor are they served by a NATO intervention. Russia continues to block a UN Security Council resolution on Syria because Syria is a Russian client in Russia’s near abroad, and matters to Russian security directly and materially. Syria’s significance to Russia is substantially more important than Libya’s. If holding onto Assad is simply not an option, Russia is likely to seek a way to play Turkey and Iran off each other, and be in the center seat for the process of midwifing a new normal for Syria. Moscow doesn’t want NATO complicating that option with a non-hostile kinetic military action – or, for that matter, enforcement of a unified UN position on sanctions.
In the absence of a new, independent regime established by an extremely well organized and brutal insurgency, Syria won’t have freedom of action outside her borders in the coming months. She will remain beholden to, and constrained by, one patron and/or another. That doesn’t mean no one else needs to worry about what Syria might do, but it does mean that Syria isn’t the only nation to watch. Sorting out Syria is a crisis point in which stakeholders are determined not to lose.
Americans have become accustomed to nothing happening without the strategic involvement of the United States. But what seems normal to today’s generations has been only a brief, shining moment in the march of history. It is much more normal, from a historical perspective, for nations like Turkey and Russia to – shall we say – maneuver vigorously to affect outcomes in a nation like Syria. Russia and Turkey may have been content to maneuver at a low level – within limits – against the status quo maintained by the US, but the “status quo maintained by the US” is a baseline condition that is no longer reliable. Other nations are going to start enforcing what they want, wherever they can. Syria’s fate – and that of her suffering people – may well be one of the first examples.